August 11, 2006

Nepal peace edges closer but big hurdles remain

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal's peace process took a big step
forward this week when the government and Maoist rebels agreed
to confine their troops to camps, but hurdles remain over
implementing the deal and over the role of the king.

On Wednesday, Nepal's multi-party government and Maoist
rebels agreed to ask the United Nations to monitor combatants
and their weapons during elections next year to an assembly due
to write a new constitution for the Himalayan country.

That assembly, the Maoists hope, will decide to abolish
Nepal's centuries-old monarchy, something they have been
fighting for since 1996.

The deal appeared to rescue the three-month-old peace
process, two days after a senior rebel leader had warned it was
close to collapse over the question of rebel weapons.

"Making headway," The Kathmandu Post said in a headline.

"This provides enough reason for ordinary people to believe
that the long-standing issue of arms management is finally
inching toward an amicable settlement," it said.

But the devil may yet be in the detail, some analysts

The two sides did not spell out whether the rebels would be
separated from their arms within those camps, as the government
has demanded, or would retain control over their weapons.

Instead the deal simply said that the "modalities" for
monitoring and verifying Maoist fighters and their arms would
be worked out by political parties, the rebels and the United

"This provision has kept the possibility of dispute over
the process of separating the arms from fighters still alive,"
said Nepali weekly, Samay.

Its editor Yubaraj Ghimire told Reuters the arms issue
could yet delay the process of the Maoists joining an interim
government supposed to oversee constituent assembly elections.

"This does not ensure immediate inclusion of the Maoists in
the government because the international community as well as
the prime minister are very clear that without the arms and
combatants being separated, Maoists can't join the interim
cabinet," he said.


The Maoists, who have been fighting to topple the monarchy
and establish a communist republic, are refusing to disarm and
want their 36,000 fighters to merge with the army after the
assembly vote.

Diplomats and some political parties have in the past
warned that such an arrangement would allow the rebels to
intimidate people during constituent assembly elections and
return to war if the assembly did not deliver what they want.

Nevertheless, more signs of progress came this week when a
panel said it had completed a draft of an interim constitution
supposed to guide the interim government in the run-up to
constituent assembly elections.

But controversial questions about the role of the monarchy
during that interim period were shelved by the panel, and will
be the subject of further talks between the rebels and parties.

The rebels are reluctant to allow the king even a
ceremonial role in that interim period. But the government says
the king's future should be decided by the popularly elected

"There are some tricky issues and hurdles to be cleared
before the interim constitution is finalized," Culture, Tourism
and Civil Aviation Minister Pradip Gyanwali, a government
negotiator, told Reuters.

Both sides have been observing a ceasefire since King
Gyanendra bowed to street protests in April and handed power to
political parties.

But it is clear that much work remains to be done before
Nepal can declare an end to an insurgency that has claimed
13,000 lives.

"There are many political issues on which both sides have
serious differences," defense analyst Bishnu Raj Upreti said.

"If there is an agreement on political issues, the problem
of arms can be settled easily," he said.